Bad Credit Card Rewards Programs

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It's the twenty-first century, and just about everyone has a credit card that offers some kind of rewards program. Yet not all rewards plans are created equally. In fact, some cards have plans that might seem great on the surface, but just aren't worth it when you get down to it. We spoke to two of our credit card experts to help you decide which credit card rewards programs just aren't worth it -- and how to find the one that is.

One Credit Expert's Story

Erik Larson, CEO of NextAdvisor.com actually decided that one of his cards wasn't worth it when he was thinking about it before our interview. "I have this Bank of America card that I've had for ages," he explains, "But I haven't used it recently, and I realized that a lot of my points were expiring."

Larson believes that a lot of people might be in this situation with an old rewards card. However, it presents a conundrum: closing a credit card account causes your credit history to take a hit, because more established accounts create a longer credit history, which is attractive to potential lenders and other credit sources.

So what did he do? "I called them up," he says. After talking to the people at Bank of America, he was able to keep his current account while shifting the credit to a different card -- one that offered a much more robust rewards program. "From the perspective of a credit report, it looks exactly the same," he says. "The only thing that changed is the card in my wallet. They even let me transfer my points over and now they're worth twice as much as they were."

Same Company, Different Card, Big Rewards Gap

Eric Adamowsky of Credit Card Insider wasn't moved to rearrange his personal finances on the basis of our interview. He was far more straightforward about cards that just don't offer rewards worth having. He identified a branded card from a large big-box retailer as having pitiful rewards (1% cash back) when compared to its non-branded counterpart (5% cash back on rolling categories). "It doesn't even offer any branded perks," he says. "There are no incentives to even use it at that store."

Similarly, a popular travel rewards card offers big differences between standard membership and gold or platinum -- with a difference in annual fee of just $25. "The basic card only has 5,000 miles when you make your first purchase." Spend just $25 more on an annual fee, however, and you get twice as many miles after completing your first purchase. What's more, with the basic card, you're only getting barebones features: miles, yes, but no priority seating, free bags or access to the airport lounge.

Adamowsky's advice? "Look at different cards from the same issuer," he says. "Spending just a little bit extra can make for a big difference in terms of rewards points and other benefits."

For his part, Larson urges consumers to go straight to the source. Talk to the credit card company that you're thinking about applying to. Ask them about what else they offer that's a similar product to what you're looking at. Remember, you're a customer, so their customer service department will be happy to help you to find the right card for your lifestyle and spending habits.

"You won't hurt your credit score in any way," Larson stresses, "as long as your stick with the same bank."

He adds that "bigger banks are aggressively marketing these kinds of rewards cards, so they can help you to find the right card for you."

However, anyone with a card in his wallet right now should think about making a call and seeing what they can possibly snag in an upgrade.

"Realistically, if you've had a card for more than a couple years, you can probably get a better rewards card with some of the programs that are out there today," Larson says.

He cites his own United Mileage Plus card as an example of this.

"The United Mileage Plus Explorer has some extra perks that mine doesn't have," he says. "I could switch to this just as easily as I upgraded my Bank of America card."

--Written by Nicholas Pell for MainStreet

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